Actors of vigilance: Indigenous environmental monitoring in Amazonia

by Jonas Bauschert and Anna Meiser

‘[…] there is a saying that says that we operate at the speed of trust […]. Relationships matter a lot with these Indigenous communities. They matter a lot. […] [T]hat kind of transparency and reciprocity and working towards mutually beneficial research agreements is very, very important to Indigenous communities’, explains Tyler Jessen from the University of Victoria in British Columbia.1 He thus describes key aspects of scientific collaboration with Indigenous groups, which are also decisive for the ethnographic research in project A10 ‘Jaguar, drone, human: Indigenous vigilance in Amazonia’.2 Only mutual, interpersonal trust, the prerequisite of which is personal, often time-intensive contact on-site, enables familiar movements within the initially unfamiliar field of research. In the context of the project, which focuses on investigating the organization and understanding of vigilance in Indigenous environmental monitoring, the first step is to get to know the people and institutions that implement the relevant projects on-site.

The exploratory research of Prof. Dr. Anna Meiser and Jonas Bauschert, M.A., in January 2024 therefore aimed to delve into the research field in Peru and Ecuador, establish cooperation with on-site partners and understand the various stakeholder settings. During the trip, the two researchers met with partner universities, Indigenous organizations based in the Amazon region, national and international (non-)government organizations, the local population and Indigenous vigilantes or monitores (environmental guardians), among others.

Based on this first research phase, this blog article seeks to illustrate the diversity of the central actors and the interplay between them in the vigilance structure. This is because ‘[i]t is not the individual who ultimately achieves vigilance […], but rather the combinations of often very heterogeneous elements that can produce or efficiently stabilize the function to be achieved in the first place’.3 With regard to the project, it should be noted that both individuals and institutions as well as technical devices, such as smartphones and GPS devices, and other non-human actors are taken into consideration, which, in the sense of Bruno Latour, function together as an actor-network.4 In the exploratory research, however, the aim was first to get to know the organizational actors, who then provide access to the vigilantes themselves and their procedures.

Access to the field of research: Organisations as actors in environmental monitoring

1. First of all, Indigenous organizations can be identified that are structured in different ways – internationally (e.g. encompassing all nine countries of the Amazon basin), regionally (e.g. encompassing all ethnically organised associations in a national Amazon region) and on the basis of ethnic affiliation. Both the Machiguenga (Peru) and the Shuar (Ecuador), who live in the research area, are represented by several political federations (see below). In Ecuador, Anna Meiser spoke with representatives of the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), which unites the regional Indigenous associations of all Amazonian countries, as well as with several elected members of the Confederación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE). This organization, in turn, represents the eleven Indigenous ethnic groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon region, who live in around 1,500 communities; CONFENIAE works closely with the political organizations of these eleven peoples. What the Indigenous organizations in Ecuador and Peru have in common is that they have taken it upon themselves to protect the environment and natural resources, defend Indigenous territories and work to revitalize Indigenous knowledge and culture. Only in this way is Indigenous self-determination possible – for which, in turn, monitoring by Indigenous guardians is a prerequisite, argues Marco Martínez, Shuar and COICA coordinator for territory and natural resources.

Figure 1: Marco Martínez, COICA headquarters in Quito (Ecuador). Source: Anna Meiser.

Vigilance over the Amazon rainforest involves much more than ‘just’ observing flora and fauna and monitoring the territorial boundaries of a political community (comunidad); it also includes monitoring conflicts within and between the comunidades, safeguarding human rights in the respective settlements, implementing participatory decision-making processes and observing traditional cultural norms and precepts. To carry out this holistic task, the guardians must draw on various sources of knowledge: in addition to the new technologies provided by national and international non-governmental organisations (see below), this also includes the knowledge of older generations, such as that pertaining to the animal and plant world, but also knowledge of myths and the ‘sacred sites’ (including rivers and waterfalls). According to the Shuar, mythical figures can be found at these sacred sites – embodied by animals such as the jaguar or the anaconda – who watch over the forest.5 The jaguar, the largest mammal in the Amazon rainforest, is said to have many characteristics, including very good eyesight. It is, therefore, not surprising that only one part of the depicted jaguar’s head was fully illustrated on a piece of Machiguenga jewellery: its eyes. This is probably one of the reasons why the Waorani in Ecuador refer to the Indigenous guards as meñebai – meaning ‘I am a jaguar’.6

Figure 2: Bracelet with jaguar eyes. Acquired and made by Eto Tsireri – Arte Machiguenga, Comunidad Nativa Timpia (Peru). Photo: Anna Meiser.

However, the need to be vigilant about the rainforest is not only based on very local needs and culturally transmitted practices but is also an undertaking with global reach for the vigilantes. For example, COICA states on its website that ‘our existence is characterised by the defence of life and of Amazonia in order to continue to be the seed of the earth and to preserve Mother Earth – so that the living planet ensures the continuity of present and future generations’.7 For the monitores, their vigilance not only serves the local Indigenous population, but also focuses on the global relevance of the Amazon.  

2. This local-global component is taken up by Indigenous organisations by working with national and international non-governmental organisations that specifically support and strengthen regional and communal (Indigenous) initiatives and processes. In order to better understand these organisations’ procedures, Jonas Bauschert visited the Rainforest Foundation (RFUS) and the Instituto del Bien Común (IBC) in Iquitos, in northern Peru, among other groups, and spoke to representatives about their approach. Both NGOs emphasized that they do not initiate new monitoring projects but rather support existing projects in Indigenous communities. According to Rolando Rodriguez Arevalo, RFUS employee and expert advisor for the Organización Regional de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente (ORPIO), it is important to get to know, recognise and support the knowledge of the Indigenous guardians.8 This is because ‘[t]he contribution of Indigenous peoples to science is crucial for understanding the territory, traceability and the origin of forest resources’.9 The vigilance setting is, therefore, based on the local, Indigenous understanding of the territory and its resources in combination with external technical support. The use of drones, smartphones and GPS devices is explained and facilitated through training. In contrast, Ana Rosita Rodríguez from the IBC emphasises that ‘Indigenous vigilance is like the foundation’, and everyone in the community can be a vigilante. Tasks and areas of responsibility are distributed and rotate regularly. This means that there are not just a few individual monitores, but a large number who monitor the entire territory and its resources. Indigenous vigilance is also important when territorial conflicts arise between communities. Drones alone do not help there or resolve conflicts, says Rosita Rodríguez.10 Therefore, Indigenous communities need concrete responsibilities and agreements as well as a broad knowledge of the territory. This is where local and supra-regional knowledge intertwine.

Figure 3: Organización Regional de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente (ORPIO), Iquitos (Peru). Photo: Jonas Bauschert.

3. The Programa de Monitoreo Ambiental Comunitario del Bajo Urubamba (PMAC), which coordinates environmental monitoring along the lower Urubamba River, takes a different approach. The head office of the programme is located in Camisea, the district capital of Megantoni, in the province of La Convención in the department of Cusco in southern Peru. The town can only be reached via a long and arduous journey, first by land and then by boat. PMAC is ‘a technical body of socio-environmental vigilance made up of men and women from the Machiguenga communities’11 and is supported by the three Indigenous umbrella organisations: CECONAMA, COMARU and FECONAY.12 The programme is coordinated by the non-governmental organisation Pronaturaleza, which carries out various social and environmental projects in the entire Amazon. It is suggested that the three Indigenous associations are responsible for the implementation and content of the programme. However, after closer examination and discussions with local representatives, it became clear that a large part of the data is managed by the international extractive company Pluspetrol, which finances the Indigenous organisations. In the case of PMAC, monitoring activities primarily involve checking that the installations set up by the company in Indigenous territories are functioning correctly. If any damage or leaks occur, they are reported to Pluspetrol first. In addition, the company gains access to information about the territory and the social and political situation of the Indigenous population through the vigilance activities of the monitores. As can be seen in figure 4, these are far-reaching monitoring activities that focus on both ecological factors and the social environment of the local comunidades. Vigilance is evident here in two forms. On the one hand, environmental changes and impacts are documented and observed, but at the same time the company monitors these vigilance activities. Obviously, some actors in the region do not consider these PMAC activities uncritically, as individual conversations on-site have indicated.

Figure 4: Information board of the PMAC monitoring programme, Comunidad Nativa Camisea (Peru). Photo: Jonas Bauschert.

4. Finally, relevant monitoring projects in the region along the lower Urubamba River are also coordinated by the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment. This applies, for example, to the Santuario Nacional de Megantoni nature reserve, which is managed by a sub-unit of the ministry (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado, SERNANP). In this case, the projects are primarily concerned with environmental and nature conservation measures as well as the monitoring of flora and fauna, but also of cultural and ‘sacred sites’ of the Machiguenga: ‘The Santuario Nacional Megantoni seeks to conserve, in an intangible way, the ecosystems that develop in the Megantoni mountains, maintaining its forests and water sources intact […], as well as the cultural and biological values such as the Pongo de Mainique, a sacred site for the Machiguenga people’.13 César Aliaga Guerrero, coordinator of the national protected area, clarifies: ‘We are nothing without the vigilantes in the area’.14 According to Aliaga Guerrero, twelve employed park rangers collaborate with other local volunteer vigilantes. Indigenous practical knowledge plays a significant role in environmental protection and is the only way to monitor the area on a large scale. However, this partially reverses who plays the role of forest guardian on a cosmological level. For it is now human beings who watch over the jaguar – although the jaguar is still the mythological proto-figure of the guardian of the forest (see above); the yellow dots in figure 5 of the national protected area show the jaguar tracks documented by the monitores.

Figure 5: Santuario Nacional de Megantoni (Source: SERNANP). Provided by César Aliaga Guerrero.

Perspectives for the field of research

Even after this short research visit, one thing has become clear: Various people and institutions engage in environmental monitoring – Indigenous communities and organisations, national and international non-governmental organisations, extractive companies like Pluspetrol, and the national government. This makes local vigilance a multifaceted practice based on different concepts, foci and objectives, depending on the actor. The understanding and the associated legitimisation of vigilance over the Amazon rainforest draw on different sources, such as the findings of conventional science but also Indigenous mythology. Vigilance activities sometimes focus more on the general change of flora and fauna and the control of a nature reserve, sometimes more on monitoring the integrity of one’s own territory or even of social conflicts – or they apply to the ‘double’ vigilance of a company such as Pluspetrol. Accordingly, vigilance in the Amazon also has different purposes, even though these do not necessarily contradict one another or are pursued simultaneously in the sense of holistic vigilance. This applies, for example, to the protection of the rainforest, its ‘sacred sites’ and also to the defence of Indigenous self-determination in the affected territories. PMAC, on the other hand, wants to emphasise an obviously responsible and sustainable corporate policy – and thus strives for international social acceptance of raw material extraction in the Amazon.

The actors in the research field described here also include us as researchers from abroad. We observe Indigenous vigilance on the ground – and, according to our experience from exploratory field research, we are also observed or monitored ourselves. In the Peruvian Bajo Urubamba, for example, this was evident in the various letters of authorisation that had to be addressed to political authorities, the written registrations at the checkpoints of each comunidad and the question of whether an interview could be recorded or conducted informally. We also understand the regular, now virtual meetings with representatives of Indigenous communities, non-governmental organisations and the university cooperation partner, the Universidad Nacional Intercultural de Quillabamba (UNIQ), as being part of this vigilant practice. Thus, these meetings will explore how Jonas Bauschert’s subsequent research stay in Bajo Urubamba can be implemented – in which comunidades, under what conditions and with what expectations. In this sense, the cautious and careful process of getting to know and attentively observing the other reflects the ‘speed of trust’ mentioned by Tyler Jessen. It remains to be seen how quickly or slowly it will develop in the course of the research project and how intensively it will be accompanied by the vigilance practices outlined above.

We thank Hannah Ritchie, student research assistant for project A10, for proofreading the English.


Cite this article as: „Actors of vigilance: Indigenous environmental monitoring in Amazonia”, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 16/04/2024, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/?p=5515.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Blogredaktion (2024, 30. April). Actors of vigilance: Indigenous environmental monitoring in Amazonia. Vigilanzkulturen. Abgerufen am 18. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/10s5h

  1. BR-Radiowissen (17.01.2024): Traditionelles Wissen. Indigene und die Spitzenforschung. URL:  https://www.br.de/radio/bayern2/service/manuskripte/radiowissen/manuskript-radiowissen-traditionelles-wissen-100.html [Last accessed: 18.01.2024]. []
  2. “The Amazon Forest is a complex system of interconnected species, ecosystems and human cultures that contributes to the well-being of people globally. The Amazon Forest holds more than 10% of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity, stores an amount of carbon equivalent to 15-20 years of global CO2 emissions (150-200 Pg C), and has a net cooling effect (from evapotranspiration) that helps to stabilize the Earth’s climate” (Flores, Bernardo M.; Montoya, Encarni; Sakschweski, Boris et al. (2024): Critical transitions in the Amazon Forest system. In: Nature 626, 555-564, 555. []
  3. Brendecke, Arndt et al. (2022): Vigilanzkulturen. Transformationen – Räume – Techniken. Finanzierungsantrag 1. Juli 2023 – 30. Juni 2027 [Internal document]. []
  4. Cf. e.g.  Latour, Bruno (2007): Eine neue Soziologie für eine neue Gesellschaft. Einführung in die Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. []
  5. Interview with Marco Martínez on 03.01.2024. []
  6. Alvarado, Ana Cristina (05.10.2022): Las guardias indígenas toman fuerza en Ecuador para proteger y conservar sus territorios. URL: https://es.mongabay.com/2022/10/guardias-indigenas-toman-fuerza-en-ecuador-para-proteger-sus-territorios/ [Last accessed: 18.03.2024]. []
  7.  COICA: Sobre COICA. URL: https://coicamazonia.org/somos/ [Last accessed: 18.03.2024]. []
  8. Interview with Rolando Rodriguez Arevalo on 04.01.2024. []
  9. Rainforest Foundation (14.11.2023): Indigenous tech camps. An incubator for Indigenous-led solutions in the Peruvian Amazon. URL: https://rainforestfoundation.org/techcamps-indigenous-led-solutions-amazon/ [Last accessed: 22.03.2024]. []
  10. Interview with Ana Rosita Rodríguez on 05.01.2024. []
  11. Programa de Monitoreo Ambiental Comunitario del Bajo Urubamba (PMAC BU). URL: https://pronaturaleza. org/proyectos/nombre-proyecto-1/ [Last accessed 3/22/2024]. []
  12. CECONAMA: Comunidades Nativas Machiguenga; COMARU: Consejo Machiguenga del Río Urubamba; FECONAYY: Federación de Comunidades Nativas Yine Yami. []
  13. SERNANP (01.01.2019): Santuario Nacional de Megantoni URL:  https://www.gob.pe/institucion/sernanp/informes-publicaciones/1928755-santuario-nacional-megantoni [Last accessed: 21.03.2024]. []
  14. Interview with César Aliaga Guerrero on 13.01.2024. []

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